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The Barnes Ultimatum

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Histories are written by the victors, but apparently the losers get to do the documentaries.  Hence, The Art of the Steal, the story of the Barnes Foundation Museum debuting in theaters this week.

The movie was a surprise hit at the Toronto Film Festival.  As Sam Adams pointed

out in the Citypaper, it was mostly because the audiences were wowed by the fact that such an institution --- lush with Renoirs, C├ęzannes, Matisse's, Picassos and Van Gogh's  -- even existed. They had no idea there was such a treasure, hidden on Latches Lane in Merion, just a short hop over City Avenue.

Which would have made Dr. Albert Barnes, the always-angry misanthrope who founded the place, very happy.  Barnes wouldn't want these effete festival goers to get anywhere near his institution.  During his life, he actively discouraged visitors, unless he liked the cut of their jibs.

Dr. Albert Barnes.jpgHis was an educational institution, that existed primarily to teach art appreciation - as dictated by the theories of Albert Barnes, a didact and proud of it.

Before he died in 1951, Barnes wrote a will that was designed to (a) stick his tongue out at the Philadelphia establishment he hated and (b) preserve and protect in perpetuity the institution exactly, precisely as he ran it.  A control-freak even in death.

Did I say Art of the Steal was a documentary? I was imprecise.  Much of its one-hour-and-41 minutes is a rant against the perfidy of those who decided to move the Barnes from its current location onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway where it will become, horrors of horrors, a museum.

To put it another way - the way the Barnes purists put it- it is the story of a "vast conspiracy," run by a "cabal" of politicians and big foundations to despoil the founder's vision and create a "McBarnes" that would serve as a tourist draw.  And, who was in charge of this cabal? "WASPish plutocrats," one Barnes purist says, as the screen flashes a picture of Moses and Walter Annenberg, two Jews.

I am surprised someone  in the film didn't recommend a War Crimes trial for Rebecca Rimel, Jerry Lenfest, (and posthumously) Lenore Annenberg, whose foundations engineered the move.  Then again, maybe they edited that part out. So much bile to spew, so little time.

The irony is that by laboring so hard to make the move from Merion to the Parkway sound like the Crime of the Century, the filmmakers inadvertently reveal the real culprit in this morality play: Albert C. Barnes.

Barnes not only wanted his theories of art appreciation to continue after his death, he also wanted to continue to pee on his enemies. His restrictions on what could be done with the institution worked fine as long as his $10 million endowment lasted.

But, after 30 years, during which the Barnes was run by his acolyte Violette de Mazia, the foundation was in a weakened financial state (due partly to Barnes's insistence that the money be invested only in low-yield government bonds) and the mansion museum was in need of expensive repairs.

Enter Richard Glanton, the new head of the Barnes board.  Glanton first proposed that the Barnes de-accession some of its holdings - museum-world speak for sell.  The Barnes collection includes 9,000 pieces and the museum is so small that three-fifths of its holdings are in storage.

Had Glanton been permitted to sell some of the lesser pieces - or (heaven forfend!) just one of its 181 Renoirs, the Barnes would have been in the black, probably for the next 100 years.  But, the late Dr. Barnes forbade such sales.

Glanton then got the board to approve a world tour of the Barnes collection, a blockbuster event that had allowed people in France, England and America to pay their money and go see this art -- people unschooled in the Barnes method of art appreciation.  In other words, philistines.  To make matters worse, the tour took the collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art - that "house of intellectual and artistic prostitution," as Barnes called it, at the end of the parkway.  The tour cemented the value of the Barnes -- as a collection and as a potential tourist draw.

Whether Glanton was a profligate, litigious meglomaniac (as Barnes purists put it) or a wise and careful steward of the Barnes fortune (as Glanton sees it), I cannot say.

It is clear that the Barnes's financial condition did not improve. And the museum was in a bind.  It couldn't raise the money by upping the admission price and swinging open the doors of the museum to whoever had the money.  Barnes's will, the small size of the place, and the hysteria of the neighbors over strangers coming into the neighborhood prevented that.

It's financial peril increased. The foundations agreed to intervene.  Their price for the rescue was a move to the Parkway.  Given the financial condition of the Barnes, a judge approved the move. The will did allow for changes if circumstances required.

The design of the new Barnes has been released and gotten good reviews.  It appears the new museum will try to honor Barnes's concepts of placement of the art.  The money it brings in will continue its educational mission.

Sometime in 2012, we will get to visit the new museum and admire and enjoy the greatest collection of post-Impressionist art in the world - albeit in our own imperfect, unknowing ways.  So it's a win-win. 

We get the art.  The Barnes purists get The Art of the Steal.

 

 Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis

 

Portrait of Albert Barnes by Giorgio de Chirico, 1926

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